The Righteous One’s Psalm of Personal Sacrifice

a brief study of Psalm 40, adapted from PCC Prayer Meeting Exhortation on 30 Mar 2007

Psalm 40 is a well-known Messianic Psalm. Almost every commentator, including modern ones, agree that it is messianic because verses 6-8 are quoted in the New Testament in Hebrews 10 (v. 6-9) in regard to the sacrifice of Christ. And it is quoted in such a way that the first person pronoun ‘I’ is taken as referring to the Lord Himself. It is the Lord Jesus who says: “Lo, I come in the volume of the book it is written of me. I delight to do Thy will, O my God” (Ps 40:7-8).

Nevertheless, there are some who object to taking this psalm as messianic in its entirety especially because of verse 12—“For innumerable evils have compassed me about: mine iniquities have taken hold upon me…” (Ps 40:12a). Christ is sinless, He could never have owned up to evils and iniquities, it is claimed.

As a result of this objection, 4 different ways have been proposed for looking at this psalm.

a. The first way is to read this psalm as originally and exclusively the words of David. But to read this psalm this way is to deny the inspiration and inerrancy of the book of Hebrews, for however you read it, the quotation in Hebrew 10:6-9, clearly takes verses 6-9 of this psalm as referring to Christ. You can’t even claim that the writer of Hebrews simply applied David’s words in verses 6-9 to Christ as that would be to accuse him of reading into the words and of misapplying the words.

b. The second way of reading this psalm is to see parts of it as David’s words while other parts of it as the Lord’s words. So for example, verse 12 would be David’s words, whereas verses 6-9 would be the words of Christ. But the problem with this view is that it would make the interpretation of this psalm very arbitrary as there are no internal indicators to suggest that the ‘I’ of verse 9 and the ‘I’ of verse 12 refer to a different person.

c. The third way of looking at this psalm is to see this psalm as the words of David, but everywhere susceptible to double application. That is, though they are originally David’s word and record his experience, David wrote as a type of Christ, and therefore every verse of this psalm has its anti-type, true spiritual meaning in Christ.

d. The fourth way of looking at this psalm is to see this psalm as originally and exclusively the words of Christ. According to view, David wrote prophetically in the Spirit of Christ so that David’s experience is bypassed, and every word in this psalm is solely the word of Christ.

Which of these 4 views is correct? I personally think that it has to be between the 3rd and 4th view. And I think it is not only true here, but in all the psalms. However, there are some psalms in which the type stands out much more than the antitype such as Psalm 51; whereas there are some psalms in which the antitype so far outshines the type that there are places where it is quite impossible to determine with certainty how the verse refers to David. When we read such psalms, I believe we can simply leave David aside, and interpret the first person pronoun as referring to Christ directly. Psalm 40, together with psalm 22, is one such psalm.

Well, with this lengthy introduction, we must come back to Psalm 40. Psalm 40 contains the Word of Christ summarising what He came to do for our salvation.

This psalm has 3 parts:

· Verses 1-5—contains the Lord’s recollection of deliverance through the darkest hour of His passion.

· Verses 6-10—summarises what the Lord came to do.

· Verses 11-17—contains the Lord’s prayer in those dark hours. This prayer is recorded for us, no doubt, not only that we may understand the degree of our Saviour’s suffering for us, but also that we may know how we ought to pray at times when we are faced with the same kind of suffering.

1. The Recollection

1 I waited patiently for the LORD; and he inclined unto me, and heard my cry. 2 He brought me up also out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings.

It is obvious that these words are written from the perspective of our Lord after His sacrifice was complete. This is a song which has been most appropriately taken by our Lord as He ascended to heaven when He gave up the ghost.

During the hours following our Lord’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, He sank, as it were, deeper and deeper into a pit of miry clay.

The hours were long. The night was dark. The pain and loneliness that our Lord had to endure were excruciating.

But He never lost sight of the Father. Even when the Father, as it were, turned His face away in wrath because of our sin, our Lord did not grow despondent.

He waited patiently upon the Father, enduring the cross, and despising the shame.

The three hours of darkness was perhaps the most gruelling time for our Lord. He, as it were, tasted hell on our behalf. But when the three hours were ended, our Lord was able to say, no doubt, with deep relief in His heart: “It is finished! Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit!”

Our Lord’s humiliation was not yet complete as His body must rest in the grave for the next 3 days. But for all intents and purposes, His sacrifice was sufficient. It was finished!

Three days later, His body was raised from the dead. Then when He had completed what He had to do, our Lord ascended up to heaven—as the God-Man, body and soul in hypostatic union with His divine nature.

The darkness, pain and sorrow were entirely left behind. Henceforth, our Lord was set on the right hand of the throne of God. His feet were, as it were, set on solid ground; and this new song of praise, in the words of this psalm, must have overflowed from His heart.

The Lord suffered and died for us. So naturally, even as He overflowed with joyful song He does not forget us. “Many shall see it, and fear, and shall trust in the LORD” He says. The elect for whom Christ came are those who are made to fear God and trust in Him. The anticipation of these who are redeemed singing with Him, no doubt, added to the joy of our Lord.

Our Lord is the man (v. 4) who makes the LORD His trust and respects not the proud nor such as turn aside to lies. But He came to represents sinners like us, so that united to Him we can also enjoy God’s blessings. So the Lord in verse 5 changes the 1st person pronoun from singular to plural: from me and I to us—usward. God, He is saying, is good towards us. His blessings upon us for the sake of Christ are innumerable. We should count our blessings, but we cannot really count them because they are “more than can be numbered” (v. 5).

So let us move now to the purpose of our Lord’s incarnation.

2. The Purpose

6 Sacrifice and offering thou didst not desire; mine ears hast thou opened: burnt offering and sin offering hast thou not required. 7 Then said I, Lo, I come: in the volume of the book it is written of me, 8 I delight to do thy will, O my God: yea, thy law is within my heart.

There are quite a lot of debates surrounding the wordings of verse 6. In Hebrews 10:5, which is based on the Septuagint, it is rendered—

“Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not, but a body hast thou prepared me.”

Many attempts have been made to try to reconcile the difference. In Psalm 40, the words are “mine ears hast thou opened”; whereas in Hebrews 10, the words are “a body thou hast prepared me.”

What is the connection between the two versions? Well, in the first place we must understand that the writer of Hebrews did not make a mistake. He was writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

The fact is: the writer of Hebrews did not quote the Psalm word for word, but captured its essence very accurately. The man who would have his ear opened, pierced or bored is a bond-slave who willingly submitted himself to the perpetual Lordship of his master. This is in accordance to the Mosaic Law in regards to a slave who is please to dwell with his master (Ex 21:6).

The point is: Our Lord who is the eternal son of God took the form of a servant in order to die for us. For this purpose He was given a body. Or to put in another way: a body was prepared for Him that His ear might, as it were, be opened.

Christ and His redemptive work are spoken about throughout the Old Testament—from Genesis to Malachi. When our Lord was finally born in the fullness of time, it was without any reluctance whatsoever. In fact, He delighted to do the Father’s will. The fulfilment of the Word of God was His joy.

And He delighted to be able to proclaim righteousness to His people. He came to procure righteousness for us, even a righteousness that is acceptable to God. So He preached righteousness during His earthly ministry and so He preaches righteousness through His Spirit working through His ministers, verse 9—

9 I have preached righteousness in the great congregation: lo, I have not refrained my lips, O LORD, thou knowest. 10 I have not hid thy righteousness within my heart; I have declared thy faithfulness and thy salvation: I have not concealed thy lovingkindness and thy truth from the great congregation.

It is because our Lord kept His promise that today we can enjoy the love and compassion of God as His children. It was after all, through the preaching of the Gospel that we knew about God’s righteousness, faithfulness, lovingkindness, truth and salvation.

These are the things that make us what we are as believers. These are the things we will continue to talk and sing about for all eternity as part of the great congregation of Christ.

But before the celebration, there was a hurdle of great suffering which must be crossed by prayer.

Consider the Lord’s prayer:

3. The Prayer

11 Withhold not thou thy tender mercies from me, O LORD: let thy lovingkindness and thy truth continually preserve me.

As our Lord was suffering on the Cross in order to share with us something of the lovingkindness and truth of God, He himself was in need of the same goodness of God.

This was especially as He was facing the effects of sin, having taken our guilt upon himself.

12 For innumerable evils have compassed me about: mine iniquities have taken hold upon me, so that I am not able to look up; they are more than the hairs of mine head: therefore my heart faileth me.

Our Lord had no sin. He needed not to feel the burden of guilt. Nor need He experience the effects of sin. But He was our representative. Our guilt was credited to Him. He had more arrows of guilt piercing His heart than any man in the history of mankind. As a result, God’s wrath was heaped upon His head and at the same time, He faced the torment of men which all result from sin in general.

That does not mean that His tormentors were justified in what they did. But our Lord would not take vengeance into His own hands. He committed Himself to the Father and asked Him to deal with them:

He sought the Father’s deliverance:

13 Be pleased, O LORD, to deliver me: O LORD, make haste to help me.

Though He delighted to do the Father’s will, our Lord did not hesitate to pour out His heart’s desire to be delivered.

He sought the Father’s justice against His enemies:

14 Let them be ashamed and confounded together that seek after my soul to destroy it; let them be driven backward and put to shame that wish me evil. 15 Let them be desolate for a reward of their shame that say unto me, Aha, aha.

The enemies of Christ are the enemies of God. He is not ashamed to ask God to judge them.

His sought the Father’s blessing upon those who seek Him:

16 Let all those that seek thee rejoice and be glad in thee: let such as love thy salvation say continually, The LORD be magnified.

He came precisely for these who seek the LORD. He was thinking about us in His darkest hour.

Verse 17—

17 But I am poor and needy; yet the Lord thinketh upon me: thou art my help and my deliverer; make no tarrying, O my God.

Our Lord who is infinitely rich became poor and needy in order that He might represent us and have compassion toward us.

But we must not imagine that He suffered stoically or that it was a breeze for Him. No, no; as the God-Man our Lord would have suffered immensely though those hours of pain and misery on the cross for our sake.

Yet, even as He suffered, He never lost sight of the purpose for which He went to the cross. He went to the cross for us. He suffered for us. He died for us.

He could have called upon a million angels to bring Him down from the cross. But He would not. Being truly human, the Lord would have desired to be delivered from the pain He had to endure, but His constant prayer unto the Father must have been, “Yet not my will, but thy will be done.”


Psalm 40 brings us to the Cross in a theological and practical way.

Theologically we see the purpose of the Lord’s going to the cross. We see that it was not an accident in history, but something that God has planned from all eternity and spoken about from the beginning of history. We see from the volume of the Scriptures that God’s people, searching the scriptures, have been waiting for His incarnation for centuries. We see that Christ our Lord took on our nature in order to suffer and die for our sin that we might enjoy fellowship with God.

Practically, we see the pain and sorrow that our Lord experienced; and how despite that, He was thinking about us. Through this psalm we are brought face to face with our Lord in His deep compassion and love toward us.

Let us sing and meditate on this psalm with a prayer in our heart that the Lord will increase our love for Him. Let us also learn to use this psalm at times when we ourselves experience the sinking feeling of being trapped in the mire. Let us look to the LORD for deliverance, with eyes of faith believing that He does all thing right and will hear our cry in His compassion—for our Lord went through worse and was delivered for our justification. Amen.

—JJ Lim